- Coming Undone
Jaded Ibis Press
426 Pages; Print, $19.99
More than a coming-of-age story, Family Album, Jason Snyder’s impressive debut novel, is a story of coming undone, of being unraveled just at the point an identity should begin to coalesce. The novel is a bildungsroman in a twisted looking glass world, where rather than discovering and creating himself as he progresses into adolescence, twelve-year-old Matthew is instead dissected and digested by a sickly cocktail of manipulation, deprecation, abandonment, and “a more or less permanent condition of atmospheric instability.” But from beneath the battering of psychological abuse, a voice, a self, scratches at the surface, strains to claw its way through.
The narrative follows Matthew’s family as they attempt to adopt a second child, but it ultimately is the story of the protagonist’s mental disintegration. The weight of his parents’s neuroses shoved upon his back, Matthew cripples under his own skin, searching desperately and destructively for a way out. And though Matthew’s perspective struggles to surface, and once in a few dozen pages an “I” emerges, mostly he is beaten back down beneath the cacophony of pathological conversations and vile voices that threaten to devour him.
True to its name, Family Album is structured like a scrapbook; readers flip through photographs—descriptive images of a moment in time—snippets of dialogue, and excerpts of Matthew’s schoolwork. These found vignettes of everyday life alternate around what is ultimately the heart of the novel: jumbled pages of Matthew’s perspective, made up primarily of found language—other people’s voices, regurgitated phrases of dialogue—peppered with interruptions by Matthew’s psyche. In his tangled interiority, thoughts begin but never finish, dissolving into one another, into someone else’s voice, swallowing meaning before it can complete, washing out any “Matthew” at all:
Believe me son there is command beneath every word I speak. And to become someone unrecognizable not the son I deserve to mother a lost fucking cause what happened to you used to be such a good boy such a joy false reality to know you are an appendage to the image better shape up become what I demand of you son something wicked something ill in the mirror reflect every expression he wants you to wear to control the dark middle of the night humming within me.
Matthew’s interjections into his own internal monologue are primarily in the second person, further erasing him and pushing his personhood to the margins, reinforcing the psychological rift, which tears deeper as the novel progresses. In these bits—these fragments of the roiling molten core of both Matthew and the narrative itself—we see Matthew splinter.
The innovative structure of the novel gives readers a unique vantage point. From the outside we watch Matthew self-destruct—explode and burn [End Page 23] things, break windows, self-mutilate—while on the inside we participate in the battle raging between a fractured multiplicity of voices. And as readers we aren’t just allowed to witness; we are forced inside his psyche, asked to decode the language, to create solidity out of the spinning chaos, to untangle the breakdown of thought as we struggle, like Matthew, for coherence.
“And to make a current within these thoughts find a place for yourself inside your mind the cold violence between them is a signal that sparks its own language you must recognize to survive.” The novel, like its protagonist, creates its own language in order to restructure the way that thought is built and to capture the winding trails through which Matthew comes to understand himself and the world around him. And not only to understand, but to constitute himself. One recurring thought that repeats throughout his sections, “And to wonder where the words lie down inside you,” speaks to the way the words create him, the way he is built of bone and skin and syllable, the way he can never extricate himself from the language swimming around and inside him—despite the fact that so few of the words belong to him.